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Our 2019 Infiniti QX50 Long-Term Test Is Over

We wanted the QX50 for its newfangled turbo engine, but we found plenty more to like.

Aaron GoldWriterRobin TrajanoPhotographerBrandon LimPhotographer

The decision to add a QX50 to our Four Seasons fleet was a controversial one—you know, No Boring Cars and all that. The truth is that it wasn't the QX50 we wanted so much as the engine that powers it. Nissan's Variable Compression Turbo engine—VC-Turbo to its friends—uses a mechanical linkage to alter the stroke of the pistons, varying the engine's compression between 8:1 and 14:1 and (theoretically) optimizing both power and fuel efficiency. Geeks that we are, we were dying to try it, and the car that it came wrapped in was secondary to our concerns. Still, we're not ones to suffer for our art, so we took possession of a top-of-the-line Infiniti QX50.

In the ensuing 14 months and 20,000 miles, a funny thing happened: We fell in love with the wrapper and grew wary of the engine.

For a group of die-hard car fans, affection for a crossover like the QX50 is the love that dare not speak its name. Senior editor Nelson Ireson once wrote, "Crossovers can be thought of as either neutered, far less capable SUVs, or as taller, heavier, not much more capable hatchbacks. Either way the recipe isn't great." Yet even Ireson had praise for the QX50: "For me, the QX50 never fails to delight with its exterior shape, please with its comfortable interior, and surprise with its flexible, powerful VC-Turbo engine." Creative director Darren Scott likened the QX50 to Muji, the Japanese answer to IKEA. "Like Muji, this environment is packed full of goodies. It's a place you want to be. Everything looks useful, and you want to try things out for size."

Much of our attention was centered on the $2,000 Autograph interior package (renamed Premium White Leather package for 2020), which includes quilted white leather seats and brown dashtop padding, steering wheel, pillars, and headliner, all trimmed with gray maple wood and blue suede. It's a color and materials combination we haven't seen before or since, and aside from the shade of the wood on the doors not matching the wood on the dash—a problem we've observed in other QX50s—it drew universal praise. "As feminine as it is classy," Scott said. "Brave and unique, a refreshing place to be, full of light and personality compared to the darker functionariums offered by competitors. Squarely aimed at the better half of humanity."

Our art director's artful description aside, we wondered how the white leather would hold up to a year of hard use. We should never have doubted: The interior looked every bit as good on the last day the QX was with us as the first.

The QX50's dimension and capacity also proved to be spot on. "I took it to Phoenix and back with the wife to visit the parents," editor-in-chief Mike Floyd said. "It was easy to drive at speed, quiet and comfortable, and fit the four of us perfectly around town. Love the interior trim and overall usability. Not in love with the center stack setup; it needs a rework." As the EIC noted, we found the split-screen infotainment system a bit confusing at times, and everyone under the age of 40 grumbled about the lack of Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, a shortcoming Infiniti has addressed for the 2020 QX50. Still, the system worked well enough, though we were left with a lingering notion that we weren't using it to its fullest potential.

One feature we definitely made good use of was ProPilot Assist, Nissan's driving assistance package. Like most such systems on the market, it includes adaptive cruise control and active lane centering. (It'll steer itself, though the driver must keep hands on the wheel at all times.) Unlike other systems, it will (gently) apply the brakes even when adaptive cruise is on standby, working a bit like an invisible co-pilot. Those who took the QX50 for long road trips or sat in traffic jams sang its praises. The system must be manually switched on, which quelled complaints from staffers who loathe electronic intervention. More controversial was the Park with Easy Steer function, which turns the steer-by-wire boost up at walking speeds for one-finger parking. Some of us loved it, but others found it unnerving.

Some staffers also complained about the fiddly electronic shifter. Scott found that the lightest touch, even unintentional, could drop the QX50 into neutral, but online editor Ed Tahaney had the opposite problem—a rather alarming incident in which the QX50 shifted itself into park right in the middle of a car wash. "They had to shut the line down twice, and I was almost rear-ended by the truck behind me. It refused to stay in neutral and I had to drive it out of the car wash. Super embarrassing, but surprisingly, I still got a good wash." The problem never recurred, so we didn't report it to the dealer.

But for the most part, the QX50 proved trouble-free. Our only unscheduled repair was a squeaking rear seat, which South Bay Infiniti of Torrance fixed with a generous application of leather conditioner. Infiniti hasn't jumped on the free-service bandwagon, but our two scheduled stops—lube-oil-filter and tire rotation at 7,500 miles and all of the above plus cabin and air filters at 15K—totaled a reasonable $214.88. (That includes a $90 discount from Van Nuys Infiniti on the second service, a mea culpa as they were half an hour late for our service appointment.)

In fact, our QX50 was leading a fairly charmed life until 18,500 miles or so, when our social media guru Billy Rehbock found a tire carcass flying across the freeway into his path. Rehbock hit the brakes—and then the tire. The damage to the very bottom of the grille looked minor, but the repair cost $1,158.43.

So what about that powertrain? In terms of acceleration, the QX50's VC-Turbo engine drew universal praise, though its continuously variable transmission received more of a mixed reaction. "Man, this thing moves out," Floyd said. "Response is great. I don't even mind the CVT all that much." Ireson called it "the consistent star of the show, providing ample power and instant-on torque. Flexible and powerful, its only significant shortcoming in my eyes is the CVT, which definitely hamstrings what is otherwise a brilliant powertrain."

So although the VC-Turbo delivered the power it promised, fuel economy wasn't even in the ballpark. EPA estimates for the all-wheel-drive QX50 are 24/30/26 mpg city/highway/combined. Our QX50 didn't even come close, averaging just 21 mpg. A detailed perusal of the fuel log notes typical in-town driving in the mid- to high teens, and even on long road trips the QX50 rarely made it into the mid-20s. Anecdotal evidence suggests that our experience is not atypical. What's the purpose of such a complex engine if it doesn't deliver on gas mileage? Maybe the VC-Turbo is more efficient than the previous-gen QX50's V-6, but we can't imagine it would be any thirstier with a less complicated turbo engine.

And although we didn't have any mechanical breakdowns, as the odometer passed 17,000 miles, a couple of staffers started noticing something strange in the soundtrack—not a new noise, but a gravelly quality to the QX50's four-banger buzz when we opened or closed the throttle. Van Nuys Infiniti handed us over to one of their master mechanics, who was familiar with the problem—ours wasn't the first QX50 he'd seen (or heard) with this issue. But there was nothing they could do because Infiniti had neither put a name on the problem or issued a fix.

At the end of our loan, Infiniti shipped the QX to one of their tech centers, and our rep told us the problem had been found: an unapplied service bulletin that was causing the engine to knock. Infiniti sent the QX50 back to us to verify that it was fixed—except it wasn't. The noise was still there.

Infiniti then dispatched a trio of technicians from their HQ in Nashville, Tennessee, who proceeded to wire up test gear to record both audio and data. We drove it, they drove it, and everyone heard the noise. A few weeks later, we got the verdict: ignition knock. Again. "It may be noted under certain conditions when there is very low ambient interior noise, and is within our current engineering tolerances," our Infiniti rep wrote. "We don't consider it a defect, nor does it negatively affect long-term durability. We have, however, provided this information to our engineering team in an effort to improve customer satisfaction."

We can only take Infiniti at its word. It's worth noting that news editor Conner Golden drove yet another QX50 at a recent Infiniti event and heard the same noise. Let's hope Infiniti is correct and this isn't a harbinger of bigger problems.

Still, the disappointing fuel economy and mysterious noise cast only a small shadow over what was otherwise a much better relationship than the Automobile staff expected. The VC-Turbo didn't keep all of its promises, but the QX50 itself delivered way more than we thought it would. Its practical size, inventive design, luxurious cabin, and unswerving dependability made it an unexpected bright spot during its time in the Four Seasons fleet. Just do us a favor, please, and don't let the word get out that we were so fond of a crossover. People might think we're going soft.

Our 2019 Infiniti QX50 Essential AWD
ODOMETER START/END 189/20,283
GALLONS OF FUEL USED 976.7
OBSERVED FUEL ECONOMY 20.6 mpg
TOTAL FUEL COST $3,863
AVERAGE FUEL COST/GALLON $3.96
MAINTENANCE 1x Lube/Oil/Filter, tire rotation: $86.22
1x Lube/Oil/Fiter, tire rotation, air and cabin filters: $218.66 (less $90 discount)
RECALLS AND TSBs No service performed
OUT OF POCKET Collision repair: $1,158.43
AS-TESTED PRICE $59,585
ENGINE  2.0-liter turbo DOHC 16-valve I-4/268 hp @ 5,800 rpm, 280 lb-ft @ 1,600-4,800 rpm
TRANSMISSION Continuously variable
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD SUV
EPA MILEAGE 24/30 mpg (city/hwy)
LxWxH 184.7 x 74.9 x 66 in
WHEELBASE 110.2 in
WEIGHT 3,857 lb
0-60 MPH 6.4 sec
TOP SPEED 141 mph (est)
OUR OPTIONS Sensory Package, $7,500; Autograph package, $2,000; ProAssist package, $550; ProActive package, $2,000; illuminated kick plates, $465; premium paint, $500; welcome lighting, $425
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